Sunday 22 May 2011

Review - Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

There are two reasons why it’s taken a while to write a review of Even the Dogs. The first is that when I finished it, I needed to step away from it and work out exactly what I thought about it. It’s very intense and reading it took a lot out of me! The other is that recently, I’m feeling slightly self-conscious about my blogging, due, in part, to the discussion going on at The Reading Ape and ARoom of One’s Own. If you’ve not been reading either of their posts, go take a look, they’re interesting. Basically, they’re discussing whether bloggers should analyse books and review them from a literary and analysis point of view, or write about their personal response to the book. This has been great from the point of view of making me think about how I read and review books, and think about my blog, but it’s also made me a lot more self – conscious about what I’m writing. I think I’m just going to try to evolve my writing at my own pace, and talk about books the way I want to. After all, this is my space, and all that I’m really after is a place to keep track of what I read and put my thoughts down in writing. If anybody reads a book because of my review of it, or if my thoughts on a certain book provoke anyone to think about it in a different way, then that’s a bonus! While I don’t agree that literary analysis is necessary when discussing a book, I do think that debate is a great thing, and literary techniques are hugely valuable and interesting, when thinking about new ways to read and understand books. I love the book blogging community, and I love the discussion that centres it. If there were no discussion about books, blogging would lose its’ sense of community, and while that’s not what I started blogging for, it’s definitely a great side effect, and one that I would miss. I think I just have to try to develop my writing my own way, without being too influenced by anyone else.

On that note, I’d like to talk about an author who (to my mind, at least) does just that. I first discovered Jon McGregor in college (U.K college, so I was sixteen). A girl in my creative writing class came in raving about his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. She read bits to us, and my friend and I actually went out and bought copies (a totally unheard of event in my pre-18, pre-job, living in the library existence!), and I completely fell in love with his writing. If Nobody Speaks is very poetic; at times the writing almost seems like a song. It’s about nothing at all, while at the same time being about everything that takes place in people’s lives. So Many Ways to Begin, his second novel, was good, but lacked the poetic writing I loved in If Nobody Speaks. Even the Dogs, is his third novel, and for me felt like a return. This time I opened the book, read the first paragraph, and smiled. It felt familiar, in the best of ways.

Here is a synopsis from Goodreads:

On a cold, quiet day between Christmas and the New Year, a man's body is found in an abandoned apartment. His friends look on, but they're dead, too. Their bodies found in squats and sheds and alleyways across the city. Victims of a bad batch of heroin, they're in the shadows, a chorus keeping vigil as the hours pass, paying their own particular homage as their friend's body is taken away, examined, investigated, and cremated.
All of their stories are laid out piece by broken piece through a series of fractured narratives. We meet Robert, the deceased, the only alcoholic in a sprawling group of junkies; Danny, just back from uncomfortable holidays with family, who discovers the body and futilely searches for his other friends to share the news of Robert's death; Laura, Robert's daughter, who stumbles into the junky's life when she moves in with her father after years apart; Heather, who has her own place for the first time since she was a teenager; Mike, the Falklands War vet; and all the others.
Theirs are stories of lives fallen through the cracks, hopes flaring and dying, love overwhelmed by a stronger need, and the havoc wrought by drugs, distress, and the disregard of the wider world. These invisible people live in a parallel reality, out of reach of basic creature comforts, like food and shelter. In their sudden deaths, it becomes clear, they are treated with more respect than they ever were in their short lives.
Intense, exhilarating, and shot through with hope and fury, Even the Dogs is an intimate exploration of life at the edges of society—littered with love, loss, despair, and a half-glimpse of redemption.

Even the Dogs asks the reader to be alert from the get-go. It is completely cyclical, in that it begins and ends with Robert’s death. It is a very short book, and in a very short amount of time, the life stories of Robert’s friends are told. McGregor doesn’t shy away from the graphic or starkness of reality. His short sentences and interrupted paragraphs, as well as the jumps between past flashbacks, and the present of Robert’s death, autopsy, and inquest, make the book very intense, and also very bleak. There wasn’t much hope offered from Even the Dogs, but it absorbed me, and so I didn’t really mind. Lately I’ve been feeling that there’s an importance to reading about reality that shouldn’t be undervalued, and Even the Dogs painted a very complete and real feeling picture of what it must be like to be homeless, let alone being an addict on top of that. Sentences are interrupted by the need to get a fix, important thoughts disrupted: even finding Laura, for Danny, isn’t as important as where his next fix is coming from. Throughout the novel, he is constantly on the move, both physically and psychologically. The novel has a jittery feeling about it, created by the undercurrent of need, dependence, and addiction reflected through McGregor’s brilliant, short, sharp style, where every word really does seem to have been carefully chosen to convey a point.

I often find myself skim –reading books, skipping over bits that seem non-essential, if an author’s been going on for a while, and I want to get to the next interesting bit. All of Jon McGregor’s books have been short, and this is definitely a strength. It means that every word is essential, making a fast paced and seamless narrative. As when I was reading If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, I wanted to savour every word; to completely absorb it and turn the meaning over in my head several times, and just revel in the beauty of it. And I love it because it’s beautiful without being happy or hopeful at all. If I’m sounding like I love Jon McGregor’s books, it’s because I really, really do. A new Jon McGregor novel  is something to be celebrated – an event which brightens up my day. That said, I do tend to not realise until they’ve been out a long while. I’m not the best on keeping up with when things are out; hopefully the blogging will improve that!

I’m sure there’s a lot more to say stylistically about Even the Dogs, and McGregor’s writing opens itself up for examination on many levels. The writing was by far the strongest thing for me (as it should be!), but coming in second was the believability of the characters. With every single character, it was easy to see how their lives had led them to the situation they end up in, which was really strong for me. With subjects like drugs, it’s really important to realise how easy it is to fall into the lifestyle. When reading the book, it was very potent to realise that many of the characters had been in situations similar to people that I know. I really enjoyed Even the Dogs, and would like to thank Jon McGregor for writing so beautifully about things which aren’t at all beautiful.


  1. I felt self-conscious, too!! Absolutely, it's your space. You should write the way that works for you. It's all any of us can do. If we started all writing the same way, for the same reasons, there'd be a collective death of 'voice.' :-)

  2. I totally agree :-) I love the diversity of people's blogs, even when they're writing about the same book! It's one of my favourite things about blogging. And thanks for being part of the discussion and making me really think about it all!